Homage to Fenwicks, Leicester: 2017


When I was a young child, adults used to ask me what my favourite subject was at school.  I would say that I enjoyed geography and history most; some people would try and pressurise me to choose my favourite and I would always say that I couldn’t choose between them.

I remember, when I was eight years old, I had to spend more than two weeks in Stoke Mandeville Hospital, having my jaw restructured.  In those days, parents weren’t allowed to stay with their child, no overnight stays, no long visiting hours.  My parents had to travel, by car, an hour and a half each way just to be allowed to visit me for one hour in the afternoon.  If they visited it meant they had to take time off work; they couldn’t afford to do that every day of the week.  They knew I was bored and miserable, especially since eating was ‘off limits’, so they bought me as many Ladybird books as I could read.  These were all about history and geography; I must have read the complete stock of Ladybird books.  This developed an even greater interest in geography and history which stayed with me when I had to make my choices about O/Levels, A/Levels and my degree course.  It was inevitable that I would choose geography for my degree course but what I just hadn’t realised was the range of specialist modules you could choose from when you signed up for Geography: physical geography, industrial geography, demography, rural social geography, urban geography, climatology and so forth.  Having made my choices, I came to realise that urban geography was my favourite.  I loved studying Garden Cities and New Towns; I was fascinated by the difference between Roman and Norman towns; I was intrigued by the process of creating cities, markets and fairs (thus linking geography with history); I wanted to learn about how towns and cities interlinked and communicated with each other before there was a telephone, a telegram or even a Post Office, how trade developed, how roads, railways and canals played such a crucial part in urban development.

At university we were required to do a practical placement, studying the elements that constitute a city: this meant walking round a city, recording the different areas of activity – residential, industrial, commercial, retail, leisure and sports areas.  I have no idea why Palm in Majorca was chosen as the city to investigate.  It was a fascinating piece of work, recording in such detail, a piece of work for which I got 98%.  98%! What a mark.  However it did make me think (a) why didn’t they let us do the work in a British town which might have been more useful in the future  and (b) I really wanted to be a town planner.

Where does this all fit with a Tea Towel Blog and Fenwicks in Leicester?  Simple really.  Firstly, I never became a town planner; I was enticed into the world of social work and social care and remained there for all my working life.  It is still something I wish I had pursued.  Instead I collect tea towels of all the places that I had been and record the memories and the histories.  Secondly, today I read the Leicester Mercury and discovered the Leicester branch of Fenwicks was closing down.  The headline read “CLOSING TIME” with the whole of the front page given over to a picture of Fenwicks plus four pages of articles.  Fenwicks is an iconic store in Leicester; someone described it as the “Harrods of Leicester and now it will be lost forever”.  The building was constructed in 1880 for Joseph Johnson, a draper and continued as a drapers shop until 55 years ago when it was bought by Fenwicks.  It is a building of its time, standing on the end of Bowling Green Street, Belvoir Street and Market Street.  Joseph Johnson used to have its own funeral department and the basement was used as a morgue, slightly different from today’s cook shop where I bought this tea towel today!

As an old building, it has taken some work to make it as accessible as possible so there are some ‘half’ floors as well as the basement and three storeys.  Let me take you round Fenwicks of Leicester.  The main restaurant is on the second floor.  It is larger than most shop restaurants and certainly more comfortable.   There are huge pictures of old Leicester on the walls.  There are banquettes around all the walls as well as in the centre of the room; they are seriously comfortable.  There are also chairs.  The restaurant serves breakfast (full English), lunch and Afternoon Tea as well as everything else in between.  There is no doubt that they sell the best cheese scones that I have tasted.  They are always warm, with crunchy sides and tops, always misshapen (as home-baked ones are) with little bits of cheese in them; you get a choice of butter or Flora.  The fruits ones are pretty good as well.  The restaurant has a free wifi connection.  Once you are connected up you do not, forever, get adverts from Fenwicks I can’t say the same for other places.  The two course lunch is extremely popular with office workers and people who are retired; this is as good as a Social Club or Luncheon Club.  You see ‘regulars’ there all the time.  What will happen to them when Fenwicks closes?  No one hustles you away when you have finished eating.  A lot of staff have worked there for many years and recognise all their regular customers, have a chat with them, know if they have been in hospital or on holiday.  It’s the sort of social contact the government goes on about.  If you want to eat alone, you feel safe and comfortable.  Fenwicks isn’t a ‘to-go’ sort of place; it’s about valuing customers.

Let me take you to the furniture department.  16 years ago I bought my sofa there.  So comfortable.  Last year, I had it re-upholstered because it was was looking worn.  The upholsterer commented on (a) how well it was built and (b) how well it stood the test of time, unlike much furniture you see advertised on then TV.  I have lots of pieces of Fenwicks furniture, including a couple of side tables and some Stag bedroom furniture from 1982.  I have bought all the material for my curtains, since 1982, and had them beautifully made up in their curtain department.  I have never been dissatisfied.  They even solved the problem of a large curved window that I have, where a curved plastic curtain rail cannot sustain the weight of the curtains.

Last year they opened a toy shop on the first floor.  There is a Lego section; it actually has more Lego kits than the Lego shops themselves in Meadowhall and Milton Keynes.  It is a dream place for a Lego fan to go.  Fenwicks kitchenware section is second to none.  You can get everything you want – from Hundreds and Thousands to hiring cake tins made in the shape of a number, from five piece saucepan sets to having a ‘collecting box’ to recycle  Brita Filters, from a range of aprons, tea towels, oven gloves, tea cosies and shopping bags to more kitchen mixers than anyone needs.  I bought much of my Spode china from their china section because it was the only such store in Leicester.

I met Anita in the Hairdressing Salon in 1980.  She did my hair for about 15 years.  I saw her through two pregnancies and she saw me through long hair, a ‘Footballers Perm’ and finally something just short and straight; she even made my hair look half decent for my wedding.  She did my mother’s hair when she came to stay after she was really ill and her hair was really poor quality, fine and thin.  I have bought clothes, shoes and handbags at Fenwicks.  My favourite pair of gloves, of all time, came from Fenwicks; they were black leather with a very sophisticated turn-up cuff made of a rich purple leather.  They were admired by everyone.  I don’t have them now because Ian Harrison’s dog ate them.  Something I never forgave him for (the dog, not Ian).  My favourite set of sheets, over 20 years old,  came from Fenwicks and there is no sign of wear.  Fenwicks sell the best luggage in Leicester; it is always sensible, useable, robust, value for money, practical and definitely not ridiculously expensive.  Fenwicks was always somewhere you could get ‘something different’ if you wanted to buy a present for someone and there choice of greetings cards was amazing.  I used to love their Christmas events where you had to apply for a ticket to shop one evening at the end of November; the offers were fantastic, you could get a real bargain.  But it wasn’t just the bargains; there was a fantastic atmosphere; it felt that the Fenwicks shopping event was the start of Christmas (and there were always free mince pies!)

What makes me angry about the closure of Fenwicks actually has nothing to do with Fenwicks.  After all, they have 10 shops across the country which are doing well – in London, Newcastle, Brent Cross, Canterbury, Colchester, Tunbridge Wells, Windsor and York; in 2001 they bought up two of the Bentalls stores in Kingston-upon-Thames and Bracknall.  Their stores are located in town centres and out-of-town shopping malls.   If they can make those a success, there is no reason why they couldn’t do the same in Leicester; there is nothing wrong with the business.  The problem is Leicester and its lack of strategic Town Planning.  Leicester had an out-of-town shopping centre (Fosse Park) and three shopping precincts in the centre (the Haymarket, St. Martins and the Shires) but that wasn’t enough for someone with no strategic view of Town Planning, so they built the Highcross.  Big shopping centre, enclosed, all the same old names that you can find in any city, full of clothes shops and eateries.  Anyone with a strategic eye would see that if you develop this, put a 1200 place multi-storey car park alongside, don’t develop the railway or bus services and finally remove a large number of car parking spaces to be replaced by a useless space called Jubilee Square, with virtually no street furniture, then you will isolate existing businesses and make for ‘dead places’.  Fenwicks wasn’t in Highcross; you can’t physically move a large store.  But you can kill it.  No one considers the redundancies, no one considers how the closure of Fenwicks will reduce the footfall on those streets like High Street, Market Street, Belvoir Street, Granby Street, Church Gate, Silver Street, Loseby Lane, Cank Street and Bowling Green Street and thus will cause the death of other smalller shops.  It is only the arrogance of people who aren’t Town Planners, who think they know best, that could dream up a scheme that could effectively say ‘We don’t need Fenwicks; we will develop a shopping centre that will rival Nottingham and invite new shops in (some of which have already closed)’.

So, yet again, I come back to Town Planning.  The Chambers Dictionary defines Town Planning as “deliberate designing in the building and extension of towns to avoid the evils of fortuitous and speculative building”.  What happened to that in Leicester?  The fact is that in 21st Century there is more need than ever for true Town Planning because there are so many competing issues.  Town Planning has to face increased population growth, climate change and unsustainable development.  In Leicester it has failed in all areas.

Today the Leicester Mercury says “Sir Peter Soulsby (City Mayor) has come under fire after Fenwicks announced that it is to shut its Market Street store.  Shoppers have been taking to social media to criticise the Mayor saying his policies on City Centre parking and traffic management have contributed to the shop’s demise”.  They are right.  Good town Planning could have enabled Leicester to develop new shops and incorporate existing stores into a logistical, strategic and exciting shopping experience, giving shoppers real choice of big name stores and independent shops.

Probably the most concerning thing is that Sir Peter Soulsby is quoted as saying “the store was not ready for a 21st Century retail environment”; he went on to say that he hoped the ground floor would still have some shops and the upper floors could be converted to residential accommodation.  These are comments that do not reflect the Principles of Public Life, introduced in May 1995, that all public servants have to work to, in particular  ‘objectivity’: ‘Holders of public office must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination and bias’.  Is that what Sir Peter Soulsby did?  It sounds to me like he already has plans for the site and made some very judgemental comments about Fenwick’s business.  He didn’t take account of the redundancies, nor looked seriously at what is wrong with Leicester, that means Fenwicks have to close while 10 other cities they aren’t closing their stores.

Today I went into Fenwicks Cook Shop to buy a tea towel, a tea towel that I would not normally buy; I did it this time so that I will remember the sad day that I heard about the news of Fenwick’s closure, the day that I realised that Leicester doesn’t know the meaning of Town Planning and the day that I read comments from a City Mayor who doesn’t seem to understand his own city and who certainly does not appear to know anything about Town Planning.

Fenwicks was never a ‘pound shop’ nor a ‘to go’ shop; but it was never an expensive shop, there were always good bargains and it was a friendly, welcoming place to shop. Leicester has lost a treasure.

PS: This is, of course, a blog about tea towels.  This one is from Ulster Weavers, 100% cotton, good absorbancy with a pattern reminiscent of Laura Ashley.  It is delightful!

Click below to return to the Virtual Tea Towel Museum



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